Demo best practices in 2021

Demo best practices in 2021 are the best in show, best in class, and best tips we use for certifications. If you’re a sales professional giving a demo in 2021, there’s a 99.9% chance it’s virtual. Your audience is made up of people who look at screens pretty much all day (and may or may not be wearing pants). This means not only means that it’s a whole lot easier for people to tune out to your demo (camera off, mute on, it’s like I’m not even here) than ever before. Think about it – in person, you’re competing for attention with someone’s daydreams or doodles. Now, you’re competing with the entire internet. This means that you need to be more interesting than cat memes, reddit, or the latest series of videos where someone eats a large quantity of something spicy and/or poisonous for our amusement. You’d best bring your A game.

Here are a few tips to help you make sure every demo is your best demo.

  1. Stop talking about COVID
  2. Set up your room with the right tools and tech.
  3. Those things that weren’t all that engaging in person? Now’s the time to get rid of them.

Demo best practice 1

Stop talking about COVID

I’ve seen a lot of demos that start with “the world has changed…” with some graphic representing the devastation from COVID-19 (I’ve seen images of people in hazmat suits which, unless you’re actually selling hazmat suits, probably won’t put the audience in a positive frame of mind).

There are two reasons that you want to leave COVID out of your demo as much as possible. The first is that, simply put, we get it. There has been no equivalent shared trauma experienced by the whole world in our lifetimes, and, for Americans, not since 2001. We are all going through this, which means we all have context. We all know that the world has changed. So why waste time talking about that? Unless you have a specific reason to talk about it – if your sale has something to do with COVID, then I’d leave it out.

The other reason is that you don’t know what the audience members have been through. People have lost jobs and homes. Personally, I’ve lost family. So if you’re presenting to me, for example, and you start talking about COVID, I will likely get a bit sad. And that’s not the emotion you want for a successful outcome to your demo.

So as you’re working on your talk track, it’s OK to reference the impact of COVID, but be very careful how you do it, and talk of the virus itself is likely better left for a different conversation.

Demo best practice 2

Set up your room with the right tools and tech

I hate to break it to you, but that built-in webcam in your computer, or a poorly lit office, just isn’t going to cut it anymore. If you want to be as professional as possible, you’re going to have to invest in some better equipment. You don’t have to go overboard, but some basic upgrades can go a LONG way in terms of your on-camera appearance.

One of the easiest elements to control, and to see the impact of, is lighting. Bad lighting and you can be difficult to see, or just won’t look your best. And, unfortunately, your audience will judge what you look like on camera (it’s human nature, as much as we may not want it to be), so making some tweaks to your lighting will go a long way.

First, you want to consider the ambient light. The best light you’re going to have is natural light, which may not be possible in your office/workspace – but, if possible, you want it either to the front or to the side. What you don’t want is a light behind you as that washes you out – most cameras don’t know what to do with a person in front of a very light background. If you have to have a window behind you, a light-filtering shade can go a long way for how you look on camera.

You can also consider lighting around the room to bring up the ambient light. For example, I have two standing LEDs to either side (they weren’t expensive – around $30-$40 a piece) that I use to light up the background. This does two things – it evens out the light behind me/controls for shadows, and it also makes it far more difficult for the audience to tell what time it is in my office. This is particularly helpful if you are doing any presentations at nighttime (especially if you’re in a global role and have to support meetings during the day in other countries).

Next, it’s time to think about the light that’s on your face. You want to even out the light that’s on you as much as possible – shadows tend to not look great on camera (which can happen if you have a lot of overhead light) – which is where a ring light or a box LED can be particularly helpful. An inexpensive ring light can often do the trick, but if you’re wearing glasses, you’re out of luck as the ring light will probably reflect in your glasses. I have the Elgato Key Light, and it was a bit expensive (around $200), but well worth it for the WiFi alone. I tend to switch the color tone from cool to warm (or, for fancy-pants film types, “tungsten” to “amber”) depending on the other lighting at the time, and being able to do that from my computer without reaching every time is pretty important.

One other option is to wear some stage makeup – a bit of foundation can go a long way for evening out your skin tone. And yes, even if you’re a man, or someone who doesn’t normally wear makeup, there’s nothing wrong with wearing a bit (a major reason JFK beat Nixon was that, for the first televised debate in history, he wore makeup and Nixon didn’t. Google it.)

Once we’re done with lighting, time to think about your camera. Get an external one. Seriously. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, and you don’t necessarily need 4K. A decent Logitech camera for less than $50 will be fine.

Want to up your camera game? The Logitech Brio is a favorite, and it costs around $200. If you want something even better, there’s a bit of a problem when it comes to budget – there’s really no great options between $200 and about $1K. If you don’t mind spending a bit of money on a pro setup, it’s worth it to get a dedicated digital camera for your video. I have the Sony ZV-1 and I love it. If you go this route, you’ll also need a 4K capture card, which converts the video feed from the camera to USB (your computer will that it like a webcam. I have a cheap one from Amazon, as well as an expensive Elgato capture card (a streamer favorite), and I can’t really tell the difference.

A couple of notes on digital cameras and your computer. First, many digital camera manufacturers, including Nikon, Canon and Sony will claim that you can use the camera as a webcam. While that is sort of true, what gets buried in the fine print is that the camera feed maxes out around 1024X576, which is somewhere between 480p (standard definition 640X480 what you’ll find on an old-timey color TV from like the 90s, or what Netflix gives you when you don’t have great cell service) and 720p (1280X720). For comparison, if you have a decent monitor, it’s probably capable of at least 1080p (1920X1080), or possibly 4K (3840X2160). In non-nerd speak, this means that the person on the other side of your video is probably going to expand it past its ideal resolution, which will not look good.

And second – when you’re looking at digital cameras, make sure it supports clean HDMI. Clean HDMI means that, when it outputs video, it will be JUST the video, as opposed to video + all of the other information that’s on the digital camera screen. It may take a bit of sleuthing to determine if the camera does it, but if it doesn’t do it, I can promise you that it won’t look good.

OK, one more point about your camera. No matter how good your camera is, get it to eye level. If it’s too low, your audience is going to feel like they’re looking up their nose. If it’s too high, it’s going to appear as though you’re “above” them (that old-school management “trick” of making the manager’s chair higher than the guest chairs”). Straight on, and they’re going to feel like they’re having a conversation with you.

Now, let’s talk audio (pun intended). Again, that built-in mic on your laptop? Probably not going to cut it (no matter how much the manufacturer’s marketing tries to convince you otherwise). It’s worth it to get an external microphone – I’m partial to the Blue Yeti (it just works), but there are plenty of USB microphones that will do the trick. If you don’t want something on camera, you can clip on a lavalier microphone. Wireless ones are not too expensive (but can be a bit finicky), and you can get a USB-C mic for less than $50. No matter what, however, don’t put your microphone on your desk – sound is just vibrations, and the vibration of your keyboard/you tapping the desk will be LOUD on camera.

Finally, your background matters. When COVID first hit and everyone was remote (some had never been remote before), there were a LOT of LinkedIn posts with something to the effect of (“look ma, I’m working at Dunder Mifflin/in front of the Golden Gate Bridge/on the bridge of the Enterprise”). Fortunately, that fad has passed, and virtual backgrounds are much less prominent then they were.

Virtual backgrounds can work, but they can also be problematic. If you have the same haircut as me (or, if you want a much cooler comparison, the same haircut as The Rock or Bruce Willis), and you wear a headset, Zoom is going to think that the headset is your hair. Meaning that there will be a gap between your head and the headset where the virtual background isn’t showing up – it will end up looking a bit strange.

That’s not the only problem with how virtual backgrounds show up. If you have lots of stuff (small shapes/colors), Zoom can struggle to keep a coherent background without any weird artifacts. If you talk with your hands like I do (I’m from the east coast, and it’s just what I do). There are lots of ways that talking with your hands can work for you, which I’ll cover in another post), you may karate chop through the background. It’s a cool effect, but maybe not for presentations.

Final thought on virtual backgrounds – if that’s the route you go, keep them static. I was once watching a demo where someone had a virtual background from an aquarium, and the fish were all swimming behind him. I was so busy watching the fish that I forgot I was supposed to pay attention to the demo! That’s probably not how you want your prospects reacting to your demos.

Regardless of which way you go – virtual or IRL – you want your background to be simple, clean and curated. Whatever is in your background can make for a good conversation starter. For example, my background is covers from some of my favorite albums (and yes, I actually own/listen to the vinyl), as well as my guitars. When calls start, as we’re waiting for people to join, usually someone will ask me what the records are, or they’ll ask about the guitars – this makes for far more interesting call intros than “how’s the weather?”

Want to really start living in the future of demos? Time to step up your presentation software.

There are tons of new presentation tools out there, and even some specifically built for presales (a profession which, until relatively recently, has been quite under the radar). A number of tools are now aimed at helping professionals deliver a pre-demo demo (not to be confused with getting pre-engaged, George Michael Bluth style), so prospects can see product on their own time. The space has been growing like crazy – Consensus, Walnut, Navattic, DemoStack, among others – and is only expanding.

But, not every organization can afford or is ready for that sort of advanced tooling, and sometimes presenters want to do something that requires a smaller investment. In that case, the tools worth looking at are Prezi and OBS.

Prezi? Like the thing that made everyone seasick around 2010? Yes, that Prezi. Except they’ve come a long way since then, particularly as it relates to video. They have a video tool called Prezi Video (no points for creativity, but I appreciate products that have names that reflect what they do. I also slso names that are pronounceable/words – looking at you mmHmm.

Prezi Video allows presenters to overlay their presentation in front of them on their video feed (not behind the way a virtual background would work). This way, the presenter’s background has no impact on the actual presentation. It solves problems like artifacts, karate chopping, etc, as it doesn’t have to figure out what’s behind you.

The biggest downside to Prezi Video is that the software is a bit clunky, and it takes some experimentation to get it to work right. For example, bullet points don’t animate all at once, so if you want that effect, you have to build in each bullet point as its own text box. It’s not that bad once you get used to it, but it takes a bit of an adjustment. Bonus tip: if you’re looking to make a bullet point symbol • but don’t want to use any sort of list formatting, alt + 8 (on a Mac) will make it.

If Prezi isn’t your thing, OBS is a great alternative. OBS (open broadcast software) is a favorite among the streamer community, and is, as the name would suggest, is live broadcasting software. With it, you can place graphics, animations, etc on the screen as you’re presenting. If you are, for example, using PPT but don’t want to do a screen share (or can’t because Zoom/WebEx/GoTo/Teams/etc isn’t playing nice), OBS can be used to put your PPT on the camera feed instead of as a screen share – at the very least, it’s a great backup to have for those times when your video platform (or, more likely, your client’s) just isn’t your friend.

Demo best practice 3

Those things that didn’t work before? Time to get rid of them

Hot take – NASCAR slides are the absolute worst. For those not familiar, NASCAR slides are those logo slides that presenters show when kicking off a demo (the name comes from comparing that slide to NASCAR cars that are covered in sponsor logos). The ones that have “here are our biggest clients,” as if that gets presenters an ounce of credibility. They don’t. Best case, clients nod and think about what’s for lunch. Worst case, they raise an objection or concern – either the client doesn’t think the logos on the slide are relevant (i.e. showing Enterprise slides to an SMB client) or, it turns out they know someone at one of the companies, but it also turns out that said company is no longer a client.

Demo best practices
Demo Best Practices 2021 are NOT Nascar Slides

Not that I have a strong opinion on this, but if I could somehow light every NASCAR slide on fire and launch the ashes to outer space, I would.

These types of slides aren’t engaging in person, which makes them even less engaging remotely. When you’re presenting remotely, you aren’t competing for attention with clock watching and doodling. You’re competing with literally the entire internet. Which means it’s your job to hold the audience’s attention, because, most likely, they’d rather be reading Reddit than watching a software demo.

This doesn’t just hold true for NASCAR slides, but for all of the “about us” slides. Founders. Funding. Office locations (since that’s becoming a thing again). Clients don’t care. They just want to know if you’re going to solve their problem, or if you aren’t. Everything else is just noise.

I mentioned credibility earlier – that’s often the reason that reps insist on keeping those slides in. But credibility doesn’t come from a slide – it comes from you as the presenter. The best way to have credibility is to simply act like you have it. If you act like you know what you’re talking about, the audience will almost always give you some leeway there. Remember – they already know a bit about you before your presentation. They looked at your website. They looked at G2. They looked at your LinkedIn.

That “about us” stuff? They already know it. All you’re doing is wasting time in your demo. Time that I can almost guarantee you’ll wish you had when you get to the end of the meeting and are running against the clock.

And, no one in human history has wanted to talk with someone who just talks about themselves. It’s a TV trope at this point – the date that spends the entire time talking about where they went to school, or how impressive their job is, etc, and the protagonist will just sit there rolling their eyes. Don’t be that person.

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